Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s top Army police unit went to Afghanistan early this year with ranks of veteran soldiers experienced in running jails in Muslim countries. It incorporated cultural lessons in its training as its soldiers prepared for the nine months they’d spend managing the primary military prison in the war zone.
Yet on its first day overseeing the prison at Bagram Airfield, the soldiers in the 42nd Military Police Brigade found themselves at the center of the worst cultural misunderstanding of the 11-year-old war, one that cost the lives of six U.S. service members and 30 Afghans.
The brigade headquarters took command of the Parwan Detention Facilty at Bagram Airfield on Feb. 20, the day U.S. service members confiscated and burned Islamic holy books from the jail library, triggering weeks of protests that theatened to undermine the NATO war plan.
The Army this week announced that it disciplined six soldiers it held responsible for burning copies of the Quran at the prison. It did not name them because they were given administrative punishments, such as reductions in rank or forfeitures of pay. Redacted Army records suggest they came from units that were at the prison before the Lewis-McChord brigade arrived.
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An Army investigation by a one-star general blamed lapses in communication and mistrust between Afghan and American service members for the costly mistake at the prison. Mishandling the Quran offended most Afghans’ deeply held religious beliefs and caused many to grow impatient with the long-running NATO presence in their country.
The report by Brig. Gen. Bryan Watson showed that service members ignored several warnigns from Afghan service members against destroying the texts. At one point, soldiers fled a growing number of concerned Afghan soldiers because they wanted to avoid a confrontation over their plans to burn the books.
The burnings of the Quran reshaped the deployment’s direction for the Lewis-McChord brigade headquarters under Col. Bob Taradash, compelling his soldiers to focus on cultural awareness in the hopes of preventing another fatal misunderstanding, according Watson’s directions at the end of his investigation.
“We have not yet achieved a level of cultural awareness within our ranks that puts respectful treatment of the Quran and other religious material to the forefront in our conduct,” Watson wrote. “We must get to a level of situational awareness that once we believe that a book is a Quran or other religious material, we must fundamentally treat it differently, balanced with military necessity.”
Taradash had been in the country for 10 days before the Koran burnings, the report said.
The Feb. 20 ceremony transferring command of the jail from Brig. Gen. Charles Petrarca to Taradash could have contributed in a small way to a lapse in oversight that week because departing soldiers were focused on providing informational briefs to the newcomers taking control of the jail, the report said.
Watson’s report showed the burnings were carried out by soldiers who believed they were removing extremist literature from the library at the Parwan Detention Facility on Bagram Airfield. They relied on the advice of an Afghan interpreter who characterized the books as Nazi-like texts encouraging extreme interpretations of Islam.
They did not listen to Afghan soldiers or Afghan civilians who advised them against burning the texts.
Petrarca and Taradash were aware of a “sweep” in the prison library, but they were not told of plans to burn material confiscated there.
“My gut instinct tells me there were good-intentioned people trying to support efforts and not communicating well, and the operation was not briefed to the level it should have been,” Taradash told Watson.
Watson’s report shows the decision to burn the Qurans unfolded over several days as soldiers at the prison sought to rid the library of extremist literature. They believed inmates were passing information to each other through the texts, and their concerns mounted over a period of months.
Between Feb. 18 and 20, 12 U.S. service members and three interpreters searched the library, removing notes and texts considered to be extremist. They collected some 2,000 books, with the majority having some religious affiliation. A military police battalion commander advised them to “get rid” of the material without specifying how to do so.
On Feb. 20, soldiers discussed burning the “contraband” and ignored a suggestion from an officer that doing so would be a “bad idea.” A Lewis-McChord intelligence officer who arrived with his brigade’s advance party also heard of the plan and told the soldiers to let their chain command know of their decision. They did not follow his advice.
An Afghan National Army soldier and another linguist advised them there were copies of the Quran in the haul. Later, Afghan soldiers gathered near the collection and had an Afghan colonel urge the U.S. service members to hold off on destroying the books.
The U.S. service members, fearing a confrontation, sped away to a burn pit with the load of confiscated literature, Watson wrote.
He was especially troubled by the U.S. service members’ decision to ignore the Afghans who urged them to reconsider their plan.
“That U.S. service members did not heed the warnings of their (Afghan National Army) partners is perhaps my biggest concern,” Watson wrote.
An Afghan working at the burn pit helped U.S. service members dispose of the books until the Afghan realized copies of the Quran were mixed in with the other literature. He grew agitated and pulled copies of the Quran from the fire, calling out to other Afghans for help.
About 60 Afghans convened on the pit, revealing the unrest the burnings would provoke. In later inventories, military police determined they seized 474 copies of the Quran and 1,123 other religious books.
Watson’s report showed soldiers expressing mixed feeling about their relationships with their Afghan counterparts, as well different degrees of cultural training.
“I have a high sense of distrust with the (Afghan National Army),” a soldier who helped load the books on the way to the incinerator told Watson. The soldier said his unit’s pre-deployment training focused on radical Islam, not the moderate religion followed by the vast majority of Muslims.
“I didn’t feel like a lot of emphasis was put on both sides of their culture, but rather on the fact that we were going to be guarding (the jail) and our fellow soldiers,” he said.
A soldier from the Lewis-McChord brigade who participated in the library search said it wasn’t clear to her at the time which books were religious in nature.
“The bottom line is, if it’s going to save a soldier’s life, I’m going to pick it up and look at it,” she said.
She was on her fourth deployment, and knew to be careful with the Quran. She gave lessons to her fellow soldiers about the importance of showing respect for Afghans to gain their trust and persuade them to provide intelligence to Americans.
“I know that if I mess up their stuff, I’m not winning hearts and minds,” she said.
Watson advised Taradash’s headquarters to take the following responses to the incident:
Review policies to ensure soldiers know how to handle copies of the Quran or other religious texts. Train soldiers to prevent further mistakes.
Renew efforts to improve relationships with Afghan soldiers so that both sides are willing to listen to each other’s counsel.
And, clarify the chain of command for different units operating in the prison.
NATO kept the Lewis-McChord unit’s work on a relatively classified status for the past seven months. It has not released feature stories about the brigade’s soldiers, as it tends to do with other conventional forces in Afghanistan.
It was also off-limits for reporters who wanted to embed with U.S. military units early this year.
Its only public communication about the Quran burnings came in February, when it sought to comfort families who were concerned about the protests.
“Despite what you are seeing on the news, our soldiers are safe. We are working around the clock to assist (NATO) in calming tensions through hard work and discussions with our Afghan partners,” the message read.